Signature challenge filed, deserves consideration
A Nebraska political activist is challenging the state’s process for qualifying independent candidates for the ballot.
Kent Bernbeck has sponsored or cosponsored five statewide initiative petitions and provided consultation or assistance to four others in the last 20 years.
No petition this time, but this time it’s personal.
Bernbeck wants to be an independent candidate for State Treasurer, challenging state Sen. John Murante of Gretna who just won the Republican primary. There was no Democrat running.
Interestingly, as Chairman of the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veteran’s Affairs Committee, it was Murante who, in 2016, championed a change in required signatures for independents from 4,000 to 10 percent of the total number of registered voters, roughly 120,000 signatures.
Bernbeck has filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the law.
He said if he is successful, he wants to run against Murante.
In 2012 Bernbeck filed a challenge to get Nebraska to return the petition-signature thresholds for ballot initiatives to their previous levels.
Bernbeck had a partial victory on the state court level, but the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled he had no standing to sue Secretary of State John Gale.
In this lawsuit he is being represented by the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU said the state’s burdensome system for non-major party candidates seeking to run for office is unconstitutional and has asked the court to prohibit state officials from enforcing it in this year’s elections.
The ACLU said Nebraska’s signature requirement is now among the highest in the country. Thirty-seven states require 10,000 signatures or fewer.
For his part, Bernbeck said he hopes the lawsuit and his campaign will promote accountability and encourage independent candidates to run in future elections.
“Voting rights are the cornerstones of our democracy. Nebraska has a long and proud tradition of ensuring fairness in our elections and providing a level playing field for all candidates,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska.
She said the 2016 change was the most extreme law in the country for independent candidates to access the ballot. The arbitrary increase serves no legitimate state interest, creates an unequal playing field giving an unfair advantage to partisan candidates, and denies Nebraska voters real choices when they head to the polls to select our state leaders.
Lincoln resident Michael Warner, a registered voter who wants to vote for Bernbeck, has joined him as a plaintiff.
Their attorney, Laughlin McDonald, said the case is important to ensuring and upholding the high ideals of a vibrant democracy.
Other than Nebraska, no state requires more than 3 percent of the signatures of the last gubernatorial vote for a statewide independent to access the ballot. Nebraska’s new law represents a 3,000 percent increase.
In my opinion, the signature change is just another move to dismantle nonpartisan politics in a state that has long prided itself on having a unique nonpartisan political system. It represents another blatant power grab by the Republican Party and Governor Pete Ricketts.
If you don’t have these numbers memorized, you should. The Nebraska Legislature is comprised of 32 Republicans, 15 Democrats, one Independent and one Libertarian. Every major state office is held by a Republican.
I’m not convinced the Koch Brothers and their rich conservative friends want to annihilate Nebraska’s Democrats and Independents, but they have made it abundantly clear that Ricketts will have the “best” Legislature that money can buy. The Republican stranglehold on statewide offices will likely also continue.
The signature law that Bernbeck and the ACLU are fighting was the reason that former Republican State Senator Bob Krist – who apparently tired of dangling from the Republican marionette strings and left the party – had to give up on his desire to run as an independent to challenge Ricketts. He ultimately changed his party affiliation to Democrat.
Bernbeck said the new threshold makes it prohibitively expensive and therefore essentially impossible for an independent candidate to achieve ballot access.
But Bernbeck is a fighter. Watch when he puts the smooth stone in his sling and goes after whatever number of Goliaths show up for this fight. Let’s pull for the underdog; the independent political nature of Nebraska depends on it.